THE NEW AGE, PART TWO:
LIFE AFTER JERRY AND ELMER: WHO WILL BE THE NEXT TITANS?
By Scott Bettencourt
One of this series can be accessed on the website.
The summer of 2004 saw the passing on of the last of the great Golden
Age composers, David Raksin, as well as the loss of two greats of the so-called
Silver Age, Jerry Goldsmith and Elmer Bernstein, who managed to keep creating
first-rate film scores until practically the very end of their lives. Many
other Silver Age greats are gone or retired; Williams continues to dominate
film music and probably will do so until he retires, while these days Morricone
seems to be scoring films for practically every country except the United
States, and Shire and Schifrin work only occasionally.
The rest of the current composers should be classified as part of a
third age: perhaps it could be called the Digital Age, for most of their
careers have taken place during the era where scores are both recorded
digitally and released on digital media (CDs and occasionally DVDs). Just
as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, John Barry, Alex North,
Georges Delerue and Ennio Morricone can be ranked at the top of the Silver
Age and Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman, Franz Waxman and
Max Steiner are among the top of the Golden Age, it might be fun to speculate
on who'll be the best remembered of this yet to be named age.
I have come up with seven principal criteria for defining
what makes a composer a perennial favorite:
FILMS: For a composer's career to have legs, they have to have
scored films that people are still watching years later -- think about
the oeuvres of Herrmann (Citizen Kane, The Day the Earth Stood Still,
Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, Taxi Driver) or Goldsmith (Patton,
Chinatown, Alien, Rudy), or particularly Williams (Jaws, Star Wars,
Close Encounters, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. Schindler's List).
TRANSCENDENCE: In this context, I mean music that transcends
the crappy film it was written for. Goldsmith was the master of transcending
an unsuitable film -- that he could write such delightful scores for the
likes of Damnation Alley, The Cassandra Crossing and The Swarm
is only one element of his genius -- but all of the great composers have
this ability; even as picky a composer as John Williams has films like
Heartbeeps and Monsignor in his filmography, and for those
largely forgotten flops he composed scores that still give a listener pleasure
VOICE: A principal element of a composer's oeuvre that makes
a collector want to buy his albums religiously is their voice, the distinctive
sound they bring to their music. Some composers like Bernard Herrmann and
Ennio Morricone began their careers with a striking and fresh voice that
they retained throughout their work. Jerry Goldsmith may have been influenced
by greats like Alex North and Bernard Herrmann, and John Williams's work
shows echoes of Andre Previn, Franz Waxman and Erich Wolfgang Korngold,
but both composers managed to develop their own particular sound which
transcended their influences.
THEMES: Though in film music melodic skill is ultimately less
important than dramatic skill, it's unquestionably a big help in ensuring
a lasting career. Certainly the classic status of themes like "Tara's Theme,"
"A Summer Place" and "Now, Voyager" have helped make Max Steiner's work
immortal even as the contemporary film music sensibility has moved away
from his lush, through-composed style. Of all film composers, especially
those not best known as songwriters, John Williams has probably written
the greatest number of well remembered themes, including Jaws, Star
Wars, Close Encounters, Superman, Darth Vader's Theme, The Raiders March,
E.T., and Jurassic Park.
LONGEVITY: One thing that makes a film composer's output truly
a career and not just a handful of scores is longevity -- not so much a
long life (though of course that does help) but being able to get major
scoring jobs (and write memorable scores) over a long period of time. Bernard
Herrmann started his career in 1941 with Citizen Kane and finished
it with Taxi Driver 35 years later. Goldsmith scored his first film
in 1956, earned his first Best Score nomination in 1962, and had his final
score released at the end of 2003, a few months before his 75th birthday.
VARIETY: In a way, Golden Age composers had an advantage over
contemporary composers. Though early Hollywood's output covered a wide
variety of genres, from the lightest of comedies to the heaviest of literary
and historical prestige projects, musically they all tended to be within
a basic symphonic range. These days, a composer has a better chance of
thriving if he can work in a modern-pop vein as well as in a classical
style -- Miklos Rosza was never expected to write rock, or techno, or ambient
music, or compose a fully electronic score.
GENRE: The most lastingly popular film composers tend to be ones
who work frequently in "genre" films -- "genre" actually means any individual
type of film, but in this case I mean action, science-fiction, horror and
fantasy. These genres tend to require particularly vivid and conspicuous
scoring, and it certainly helps that film music fans are frequently action
and sci-fi/horror/fantasy fans as well. (In the Golden Age, big budget
sci-fi and fantasy films were uncommon -- the closest equivalent would
be Biblical epics which similarly required a vivid musical imagination,
forthright emotion and even unusual orchestrations)
In this column we will look at two composers who seem, based on these
criteria, to be among the most plausible choices to be seen as the most
popular of our time in decades to come.
1. DANNY ELFMAN
FILMS: While many disreputable films of the 1980s -- John Hughes'
high school comedies, the lesser Amblin' output such as The Goonies
-- have an inexplicable cult following today, the early Tim Burton films
scored by Elfman have earned their continued popularity. Though Batman
is still a stylish but incoherent mess, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure
and Beetlejuice have lost none of their humor or imagination. Edward
Scissorhands was only a modest hit at the time of its release but Johnny
Depp's star power has soared greatly since, and the score is ever-popular
and widely imitated (and the film has even inspired a brand new ballet
from star choreographer Matthew Bourne, utilizing Elfman's music). Good
Will Hunting was an immensely popular film at the time of its release
and may retain its popularity (though the notion of Ben Affleck winning
an Original Screenplay Oscar is likely to puzzle future generations). The
Nightmare Before Christmas, like Scissorhands only a modest
success at the time of release, has gained a deservedly huge following
in the 13 years since its release, and Elfman's music is an inextricable
element of its success.
TRANSCENDENCE: Elfman had a doubly daunting challenge on Tim
Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes -- following up one of
Jerry Goldsmith's masterpieces, a score that helped change the sound of
film music in the late 1960s, and writing a fresh and exciting score for
a slick but uninspired rehash of a sci-fi classic. Though Elfman's score
unsurprisingly has so far failed to attain the classic status of the Goldsmith
work, it's a fresh and imaginative score that's one of the few redeemable
elements of its film, one of those high grossing movies that no one seemed
to genuinely like.
VOICE: Elfman has arguably the most distinctive voice in film
music today, quirky and lighthearted but capable of beauty and great emotional
force (the cue "Ginger Snaps" from Black Beauty is an almost unbearable
portrait of emotional distress, and for a scene about a horse, no less).
Even though his first major score, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, showed
noticeable influences of Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann (two admitted Elfman
favorites), it also demonstrated his own strong and distinctive sensibility,
and his score for Batman helped define the sound of contemporary
superhero films (which these days seems like every second film released).
THEMES: As befitting a composer whose background is in songwriting
(Oingo Boingo), Elfman is a first-rate melodist. Though some of his finest
melodies (especially Black Beauty) have yet to attain the classic
status they deserve, he has composed many fairly indelible themes, both
for the big screen (Pee-Wee, Beetlejuice, Batman, Edward Sciossorhands,
The Nightmare Before Christmas, Men in Black) and the small (The
Simpsons, Tales from the Crypt, Desperate Housewives).
LONGEVITY: Elfman's career as a Hollywood composer has spanned
over two decades, and he's maintained his success with almost Williams-esque
consistency over that period. Although he remains underappreciated by the
Academy's Music Branch (only three nominations: two in 1997 and one in
2003, and none for such memorable scores as Scissorhands, Sommersby
or Nightmare), he's never gone long without a mega-hit, and
last year's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was one of his highest
VARIETY: With the success of Pee-Wee and Beetlejuice,
Elfman might easily have stayed typecast in zany comedy -- he was in no
way a predictable choice to score Batman, but Tim Burton's loyalty
to his composer won him the job. His brooding score was markedly different
in tone but still managed to maintain the Elfman sound, and over his twenty-plus
years he's worked in nearly every genre, including urban capers (Dead
Presidents), dark comedy (To Die For), period romance (Sommersby),
humanist drama (Good Will Hunting), science fiction adventure (Planet
of the Apes) and psychological suspense (Delores Claiborne).
Actually, it's harder to think of a genre Elfman hasn't worked in...Westerns,
maybe (not that they're making so many of them these days).
GENRE: Though he's more adept with lighthearted material than
Goldsmith was, Elfman is in many ways the Goldsmith of our time, not only
because of his fresh orchestral style and his ability to conceive a score
orchestrally and not just melodically, but because of his particular fluency
in genre projects. He practically owns the superhero genre (two Batmans,
two Spider-Mans, Hulk, Dick Tracy and Darkman), has
worked successfully in science-fiction (Planet of the Apes) and
has scored monsters both fantastic (Nightbreed, Sleepy Hollow) and
human (Red Dragon). His fantasy projects particularly bring out
his imagination, with Beetlejuice, Nightmare Before Christmas, Charlie
and the Chocolate Factory and Corpse Bride among his strongest
CONCLUSION: With his combination of distinctive style, memorable
melodies, enduringly popular films, a large number of genre projects, and
his consistency of musical voice, Elfman is, in my opinion, the composer
of his generation most likely to remain a popular favorite in the decades
2. THOMAS NEWMAN
FILMS: Newman has become the de facto composer for Oscar bait
projects, and amongst all his Best Picture nominees of the last 14 years
-- Scent of a Woman, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, Erin
Brockovich, In the Bedroom -- it's likely that some of them will stay
classics (the increasingly beloved Shawshank much more plausibly
than Scent of a Woman, which these days is thought of mostly as
that "hoo-hah" film that finally won Pacino the Oscar he'd deserved for
much better performances). Even some of the failed Oscar bait like Cinderella
Man and Jarhead are likely to age well, and as adults often
retain a fondness for the hit films of their childhood, Finding Nemo
and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events could prove
to become perennial family viewing (Nemo more plausibly than Lemony).
The Player has retained its critical reputation as one of the best
films of the '90s (and one of the best films about Hollywood), while Fried
Green Tomatoes has a good chance of remaining a popular favorite.
TRANSCENDENCE: Meet Joe Black, Martin Brest's lavish remake of
Death Takes a Holiday, was several years in development and seemed
to take even longer to watch (it was in fact 178 minutes, longer than most
Kubrick films). With all the years and money he spent on the film, Brest
didn't seem to notice that the audience might not care about the last days
of an obscenely wealthy man (so wealthy he has an indoor swimming pool...in
his Manhattan apartment), or that his Death figure (Brad Pitt with full-on
movie star grooming) was eloquent and philosophical one moment and a peanut
butter-licking man-child the next. Nevertheless, Newman's score was properly
romantic and charming, matching the film's varied tones, and only at the
end did it seem to strain a little (but only a little) too hard to fill
in the emotional gap left by the director, writers and cast.
VOICE: Newman has one of the most distinctive voices in film
music today, so distinctive that the quirky, percussive sound he's used
in many of his scores (American Beauty is dominated by it, and it
can be heard in other scores like Pay It Forward) has become a cliche,
popping up with alarming regularity in other composers' works. Many of
today's filmmakers (not just Steven Soderbergh) prefer a less assertive,
more ambient sound than the kind of forthright scoring that appeals to
collectors, but though Newman is skilled with the laid back approach, when
a more direct, melodic approach is required, he is one of the strongest
composers today, and his melodies are reliably emotional and distinctive
without being syrupy or clichéd.
THEMES: None of Newman's themes have yet to penetrate the public's
consciousness to the extent of a classic Williams/Lucas theme like Star
Wars or The Raiders March -- probably his most recognizable
themes are Six Feet Under and the American Beauty motif.
However, as I noted above in the "Voice" section of this discussion, when
Newman chooses to use a thematic approach rather than an ambient or rhythmic
style, his melodies are amongst the finest in contemporary scoring, with
Fried Green Tomatoes, The Player, Scent of a Woman, Little Women, The
Shawshank Redemption, Red Corner, The Horse Whisperer, Meet Joe Black,
Finding Nemo and Angels in America all benefiting from his memorable
LONGEVITY: Newman has been scoring features for two decades,
and he made a reasonably quick transition (seven years) from his early,
youth oriented (and hardly prestigious films) like Reckless and
Revenge of the Nerds to the adult, Oscar-nominated fare like Fried
Green Tomatoes and Scent of a Woman that makes up the bulk of
his current oeuvre. Newman is wisely selective about his projects, and
(with the exception of Pay It Forward), even the Oscar bait films
that fail to win Oscars, like Cinderella Man and Jarhead,
are worthy efforts.
VARIETY: Beyond his versatile gifts, Newman's career path itself
shows his tremendous variety, from the early days of Revenge of the
Nerds and Desperately Seeking Susan to the most earnest of serious
Hollywood films like The Horse Whisperer and Cinderella Man.
Though even as adventurous a composer as Newman has developed certain traits
or ticks -- that American Beauty sound has worn out its welcome
-- scores like Jarhead show his efforts to move in new musical directions
to suit the demands of the film. Listening to the quirky urban sounds of
Susan, one would never have imagined Newman capable of the stirring
Americana of Little Women, or the exultant yet tragic romanticism
of Oscar and Lucinda.
GENRE: Because his career has been so dominated by high profile,
Oscar bait dramas, he's scored fewer of the genre films that tend to make
a composer especially popular with film music fans. There have been a scattering
of suspense thrillers throughout his career (Whispers in the Dark, Red
Corner), a pair of children's fantasies (Nemo, Lemony) and one
practically unclassifiable art house supernatural drama (The Rapture).
CONCLUSION: Newman could end up becoming the Alex North of his
generation -- a composer's composer, with a wealth of prestigious projects
under his belt, but with few of the type of genre films that make a composer
perennially popular with collectors.
NEXT TIME: A look at three more A-listers, and
how they may fare in the decades to come.